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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Paris , part deux! (MBDPSW edition)

When one thinks of getting around in Paris, driving a massive, Mercedes-Benz diesel-powered station wagon (MBDPSW) probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind.  The Metro system in Paris is one of the best in the world.  The lines run everywhere you need to go, you rarely have to wait more than three minutes for a train, and they are for the most part, clean, safe and affordable.  Plus there are taxi stands everywhere and the cab fare isn't that bad.

The house where we were staying in Garches, outside Paris, gave us access to a MBDPSW, and we took advantage of said access to make a day trip to the American Cemetary at Belleau Wood.  Belleau Wood is the site of a major battle in World War I.  The Germans were advancing on Paris, and the French were in trouble.  US troops were called in, many of them Marines.  Retreating French forces urged the Americans to do the same, when a Marine commander said "Retreat?  Hell, we just got here."  The Marines helped beat back the Germans and it became a seminal moment in U.S. Marine history.

Annie has a fascination with cemeteries and we have stopped at random cemeteries in various countries over the past eight months or so, but this trip was personal.  Her great uncle, James Wallace Costigan, died at the age of 19 in the battle of Belleau Wood.  The American Legion Post in Newport Kentucky is named for him, and Annie actually stopped in there once.  She has some relatives who have made the trek to the memorial which is about an hour and a half northeast of Paris.  So we piled the kids and the yellow lab we were watching, Lucy, into the MBDPSW and dove into Paris traffic on a sunny Tuesday, July 31.
Traffic on the freeway that runs just south of Paris was busier than we expected and the Garmin we had was a little slow in keeping up-something that would be a major factor in a later foray into Paris.  Once we got on the A4 heading out of town, it was a smooth ride through the pleasant French countryside.  It was difficult to imagine a bloody battle playing out in such beautiful surroundings.

The Belleau Wood Monument is part of the American Battle Monuments Commission, and is quite impressive.  The ABMC is a government agency, funded by US taxpayer money.  After what we saw during our brief stop at the Belleau Wood Monument we all felt it's money well spent, which you can't always say when it comes to government spending.  From the moment you drive in, it's apparent that the people taking care of the grounds take their responsibility very seriously.

The visitor's center includes background information on the battle and also has a notebook where you can look up the gravesite of individual soldiers.  It didn't take us long to find the listing for James Wallace Costigan.

There was also a page that listed when each soldier died.

The young Costigan soldier from Kentucky died on July 31, 1918.  It took us a moment, but Annie and I quickly realized that we were there, purely by coincidence, on July 31, 2012.  That added even more meaning to an already emotional visit. 

We left the visitor center, searching for Row 3, grave 46, which was situated in the series of graves to the left of a central grassy area with a flag pole flying the Stars and Stripes.  

As we walked down the third row, we read the names of the other soldiers who had died in this battle.  They were from all across the U.S. and most died in June or July of 1918.  Some had special notices of bravery or heroism, while most just silently listed their name, rank, home state and date of their death.

Finally, we found what we were looking for.  The white cross with the name James Wallace Costigan, a private with the 6th regiment of the U.S.M.C., 2nd Division, who was from Kentucky.

Annie and I both teared up, thinking of what it must have been like, (but really having no idea) being so far from home seeing your fellow soldiers wounded and dying by your side every single day.  It was a good history lesson for us and for the kids and for them, personalized what was at one time called the Great War.  Talk about an oxymoron.
We took our time strolling around the grounds, reading some of the other names etched into the crosses, wondering what it was like for the families back home to get the bad news about their loved one who wouldn't be coming home.

Annie had been carrying around some of the ashes of her step-dad Tom, whose death in 2010 helped trigger us taking this trip.  She found a spot up on a hill overlooking the graves, and left some of Tom behind, knowing he would appreciate the history of the spot.
The following weekend, Annie and Marley hopped on the Eurostar train and took a trip to London.  We have friends of friends from back home in Cincinnati who live about an hour north of London in Northampton and they offered to put the girls up for three nights.  It would be the first time on the trip that all four of us would not be together, so that would be interesting to see how we felt about that.

Ben and I accompanied the girls to the train station to make sure they got there okay, (they are delicate flowers you know!) and then we made plans to find super cars for Ben to see.  Our first attempt at that didn't turn out so well.

On the day after the girls left for London, Ben and I got up, grabbed the SCNF train in Garches to the La Defense station which was only three stops away, about a 15-minute ride.  La Defense is where we could get the Metro into Paris and the area of town where Ben had discovered several dealerships selling supercars, including Lamborghini and McLarens.  The problem came when we arrived and discovered that like much of Paris, the car dealers took two-hour lunch breaks.  The sign on the dealership door said that they would be open the following day, Saturday, until 12:30, so we made plans to get an earlier start the next day and get there in time to see if we would see the cars.

We still had much of Friday afternoon ahead of us, so we walked a few blocks to another Metro stop which would connect us with a line that would take us to the Franklin Roosevelt station.  That's within walking distance to the Palais De la Decouverte, or Palace of Discovery.  Ben is into science and astronomy and cosmology and I thought it would be something fun and educational for us to do.  It was either that or an afternoon show at the Moulin Rouge, and I'm not sure Ben is ready for that at the tender age of 12.

The only thing that we really discovered at the Palace of Discovery was that it was a mistake to buy a ticket for a planetarium show that you think is going to last a half an hour when actually it's 45 minutes.  We also discovered that my mastery of the French language was much more limited than I thought and that the lunch at the cafe at the Palace was barely edible.  The cafe did have wi-fi, but all that did was allow us to see all the Facebook postings that Annie was making about what a great time the girls were having in London.  Made us feel kind of like losers.

Ben and I drowned our sorrows in our disappointing day with some really good homemade cheeseburgers that I whipped up at the house back in Garches.  He liked so much he requested them again the next night.  And that would help finish off what would turn out to be a great day for the guys.

Our day on Saturday started out a bit earlier than what we did on Friday, making sure we got to the part of Paris where we hoped to be able to see Lamborghinis and McLarens.  We had the routine down pretty well when it came to the timing of the train from Garches to La Defense.   That familiarity got us to Boulevard St. Cyr about 45 minutes before the 12:30 closing time for the day.

As we walked down the street, we passed the showrooms displaying a couple of Lamborghinis, but there was no sign of any salesmen or women around.  In the next showroom, there they were:  McLarens.  They looked gorgeous and fast even standing still.  The door closest to where the cars were was closed, but we could see through the window that there was an opening that led into a larger showroom.  As we walked down the sidewalk in that showroom's direction, we found that there were about three Rolls Royce cars on display.

The doors to the showroom were locked, but we could see some salesmen inside.  I wasn't sure what sort of reaction we would get, but I went ahead and pressed a silver button by the side of the door.  One of the salesman looked in our direction and we heard a click and the world of luxury cars was ours.

I approached a salesman, explaining that my son just wanted to see the McLarens and he motioned toward the cars and told us to go right ahead and take a look.  They were stunning.
We carefully circled the cars, showing them the proper respect under the watchful eye of a very friendly salesman.  Ben and I discussed the cars with him, and I think he was impressed with Ben's knowledge of the super car world.  That may have been why he invited Ben to sit inside one of the cars.  Ben did that with a smile as big as the car's price tag, which was about 238,000 Euros.
We made sure not to overstay our welcome and walked back out onto the streets of Paris, happy to accomplish one of the major goals of the trip for Ben.

He doesn't say much very often about how he's feeling about things, but as we made our way through the Metropolitan toward the Rue Cler area for lunch, he said "I'm happy."  For him, that's like jumping up and down and shaking me by the shoulders in glee.  That made my day to have him say that, and our good moods continued after a nice lunch on what was becoming our favorite area of Paris.
Rue Cler is in the 7th arrondissement, not too far from the Eiffel Tower, and the street becomes a pedestrian walkway on Saturdays, with a market that gets going early in the morning.  Most of the market activity had wrapped up by the time we got there for lunch, but it still had a great vibe on a beautiful day in Paris.  I had gotten tipped off to the area by a former co-worker who had traveled pretty extensively in Europe and he is an "off the beaten path" kind of guy.

After lunch, Ben and I strolled through the streets toward the Eiffel Tower, passing by markets and shops and cafes.  As we got ready to cross the Avenue Bosquet on Rue Grenelle, Ben spotted a man sitting in a window seat of a cafe drinking a Dr. Pepper.  Ben LOVES Dr. Pepper and it was a fairly rare occurrence to find it in the course of our trip.  So we walked over to the cafe and went inside. 

The McCoy Cafe was filled with drinks and snacks and food items that we hadn't seen since we left the States almost eight months earlier.  We happily bought Ben a Dr. Pepper and continued our walk toward the Eiffel Tower.

The approach to the tower from the south and east as we were going is great because the buildings on the surrounding streets are about six stories tall and there are a lot of trees in the neighborhood, so you don't really see the tower until you get to the wide park that spreads south like an inviting green blanket.

It was the kind of summer afternoon in Paris that keeps postcard companies in business and we really enjoyed strolling through the park, seeing locals having lunch with baguettes and cheese and wine, while tourists bustled about, getting on and off buses to capture the moment digitally.

While we had seen the Tower from afar in the couple of weeks we had been staying in Paris, we hadn't gotten up close and personal with it.  It's an amazingly graceful and delicate structure for its size.  The supports seem to sprout from the ground like a tree, and rise elegantly into the sky.

The lines of people waiting to go up inside the Tower were very long, probably meaning a wait of an hour or more at least, so we kept walking toward the Seine on the north side of the Tower. 

We were just soaking it all in, taking in the vibe when Ben heard a super car.  He has a great ear for them, and when we turned toward Quai Branly, sure enough, there was a McLaren.  We had never seen one in action on the street and fortunately for us, it had to stop at a traffic light.  I told Ben to go stand by the car on the sidewalk as we sprinted through the tourists to get a photo.

The color of the car even matched the Dr. Pepper can Ben had in his hand!  What a day we were having!

By this time, it was only about 2:15 and I wasn't ready to head back to the house in Garches, so I decided to have us do some reconnaissance.  Annie's mom was coming to stay with us for a week or so in a little over a week, and we had purchased tickets to see Vivaldi's Four Seasons performed at Sainte Chapelle while she was there.  I wanted to see what it would be like to have her navigate the Metro with us because I really had no desire to drive the MBDPSW into the heart of Paris.  Plus I love the Metro system and this gave me an excuse to try out a couple of different lines we hadn't been on.  The metro stops are all different and in some of the busier stations where there are frequent transfers, musicians will gather and play music that echoes through the long hallways.
Sainte Chapelle is located on Il de Cite, the same island in the Seine that is home to Notre Dame.  Ben and I determined that Annie's mom should be able to make it there on  the night of the concert without too much trouble.  She's 81 and gets around pretty well for someone of that age, but we didn't want her to have to walk too far and the Metro stop by Sainte Chapelle was short walk away, plus there was an elevator to exit the depths of the subway system.  We felt pretty good about her being able to do that without too much effort.

Annie's mom, Janet or Mimi as we all call her, arrived in Paris early one Monday morning, about half-way through our month-long stay in Garches.  We drove the MBDPSW all the way out to Charles De Gaulle airport, about a 40-minute drive.  Fortunately, a family that lives three houses down from us in Madeira was on the same flight and we asked them to look for Mimi and help make sure she got to the right place, which they did.  It was great to see her for the first time in about 8 months.

She enjoyed spending time with us at the house in Garches, and we passed a lot of time watching the Olympics from London.  We laid low the first couple of nights, then came time for our big trip into Paris to see the concert at Sainte Chapelle.

Annie wasn't completely comfortable with the idea of having her mom try to navigate the train and Metro combination to get into Paris, so we decided to drive the MBDPSW to the train station in Garches and catch a taxi.  I figured the main challenge would be getting a taxi big enough for five people, but Garches is a fairly major stop and we had seen taxis there in our frequent trips into Paris.

The concert started at 7 and the website where we bought the tickets advised us to get there around 6:15, so we figured if we got a taxi around 5:30 we would have plenty of time to get to Saint Chapelle.  However, when we got to the train station, it was sans taxi.  Not a cab anywhere in sight.  The train really wasn't an option as one had just left the station and another one wasn't due for a half an hour, which would most likely get us into Paris around 6:45 or so and that's not taking into account taking longer to go at Mimi's pace through the Metro.

We waited around for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do and hoping a taxi would magically appear.  Annie finally said was I was afraid she would say:  "We could always drive in."  Meaning I would be driving the MBDPSW into the depths of Paris on a Thursday evening at rush hour.  It was the second-to-last thing I wanted to to, the last being missing the concert.  I really wanted to hear that beautiful music in that gorgeous setting knowing it would be something we would all remember the rest of our lives.

It was with a minimum of grumbling that I got back behind the wheel of the MBDPSW and we punched the address of Sainte Chapelle into the Garmin and started toward Paris.  The ETA on the Garmin was about 6:17 so I figured with a missed turn or two which seemed inevitable, we would probably get there around 6:30 or so.  Not ideal, but not bad and we would still see the concert.

Traffic wasn't bad and the ETA didn't changed much as we cruised along the main highway that takes traffic south of the central part of Paris, and I knew we would be making a left at some point.  The highway had exits on top of exits and the Garmin was having trouble keeping up and sure enough, we missed our turn.  Recalculating.  Okay, all we have to do is make a turn where the Garmin says, oh wait we just drove by that!  The Garmin continued to have trouble keeping pace with the MBDPSW, and the next thing we knew, we were heading on the highway towards the Orly Airport, which is well south of Paris and in the opposite direction of Sainte Chapelle.  Super!

The ETA on the Garmin was now saying 6:47 and that included the effort of turning around at some point.  Unfortunately, there is only one exit between where we got on that highway and the airport and it lead through a gas station which didn't look like an exit to me as I sped by.  After about six or seven miles we made it to Orly, and considered abandoning the car and flying somewhere just because we were at Orly.  We let those thoughts pass and made it through the arrival and departure zones and got back on the highway, heading for Paris and Sainte Chapelle.  We hoped. 

Once we got back into Paris and got off the highway onto the surface streets, traffic slowed to a crawl.  The Garmin ETA continued to inch it's way toward 7, (what is it with us and 7pm deadlines in Paris?) and there was some discussion of doing the French thing and giving up.  I had visions of anytime I heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons for the rest of my life collapsing in a pool of tears, so I was determined to forge ahead at least until we were still not at Sainte Chapelle and it was after 7.

Fortunately traffic cleared up some just in time and we managed to get to Sainte Chapelle at 6:55 without breaking many traffic laws or social customs of Paris.  Let's just say no pedestrians were seriously wounded in arriving at our destination.  Annie and Marley and Mimi got out of the car while Ben and I went and parked it in the garage right across the street.  It's a healthy walk from where you enter the complex where Sainte Chapelle is located to the chapel itself.  For whatever reason, the French Supreme Court is located there, so there are gates to go through and stairs to climb, but we made the walk and the climb and saw a woman urgently directing people down one final hallway.  Right at 7pm. 

I figured we would make it just in time when the girls decided they just had to go to the bathroom.  Really?  After nearly leaving the country and making it here just in time, it's time to powder your noses?? Following what seemed like an eternity, the ladies emerged from the restroom and we got to the lobby just outside the chapel just in time to hear the familiar opening strains of the first movement of the Four Seasons.

A staff member patiently ushered us inside and motioned for us to stay standing for a bit.  We had purchased tickets in the medium price range, fairly close to the front and after the first movement was over, we made it up the aisle and to our seats.  That's when I finally exhaled and tried to put the tension of the ride into Paris and the prospect of missing the concert behind me and just soak in the sights and sounds. 

Sainte Chapelle is world-renowned for its spectacular stained-glass windows that are currently undergoing a restoration project.  It was still light out, so the brilliant colors of the glass lit the cathedral with a warming, soothing glow.

The music being played was up to the challenge of matching the beauty of the setting.  Six musicians were led by a violinist who had a very charismatic way of playing.  He would make facial expressions implying that he was not in control of the music, that it was just coming from his instrument of it's own volition and he was simply along for the ride.  The musicianship was stellar and the other players were fun to watch as they reacted to the flamboyant style of their leader.

I had forgotten how much of the Four Seasons I was familiar with and how much I loved it.  The quality of the music and the fantastic setting made it the highlight of our time in Paris with Annie's mom and one of the highlights of our entire time in France.
After the concert we had a decent dinner at a restaurant right across the street from Sainte Chapelle.  Normally we try to get a bit more off the beaten path, but convenience won out and we accomplished our goal of getting done with dinner before it got dark for the drive home.  Driving in Paris was enough of a challenge in the daylight, I didn't want to add darkness to the equation, which is pretty much a 365/24/7 policy for me.
The Garmin in the MBDPSW had a "home" feature which conveniently calculated the route back to Garches and we punched those directions in as we emerged from the parking garage in the twilight.  As we followed the guidance of the GPS, I realized it was taking us toward possibly the most famous street in the world.  

It was thrilling to make the right hand turn and start up the Champs Elysees, which by that time of the day was lit up by lights strung on the trees and lamp posts on both sides of the road.  At the top of the Champs Elysees, there is a tunnel that takes you under the roundabout circling the Arc De Triomph, but after having made it to the concert barely on time and being rewarded with one of the best musical experiences of my life, I wasn't about to cheat myself and my family of the thrill of driving around the Arc.  
  
I had noticed on two previous visits to the Arc, that when there is open space, drivers hit the gas hard, trying to beat the traffic feeding in from the other spokes funneling traffic into the roundabout.  When the traffic light on the Champs Elysees at the Arc turned green, I had some open space and I gunned it.  I made it past about five feeder spokes with no interference, but as I spotted the street that would take us back toward Garches, a line of traffic started to enter the circle from the right.

It was right about then a line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off popped into my head.  It's from the scene when Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are leaving the fancy restaurant after lunch and they run into Ferris' dad, who somehow doesn't realize who he has almost literally bumped into.  Cameron says, "we're pinched for sure!" to which Ferris replies, "Only the meek get pinched, the bold survive!"  With that cinematic inspiration in my head, I boldly hit the gas and raced past the oncoming traffic, and sped down Avenue Victor Hugo toward the safety and serenity of the suburbs.

In the days following the departure of Annie's mom from our home away from home in Garches, we made a few more trips into Paris.  Our final one was on the day before our departure to Scotland.  We re-traced the trip Ben and I made on our boy's day, having lunch on Rue Cler, meeting a former co-worker's of Annie's who lives just outside Paris.


After that, we took a final stroll through the picturesque streets and spent some time enjoying the ambiance of the Eiffel Tower.  We were graced with a spectacular summer Saturday in Paris, drawing a picture-perfect conclusion to our time in a magical place.

We're certainly not the first people to fall under the spell of Paris and we won't be the last.  Plenty has been written about the city, much of it by far more talented writers than me.  With that in mind, I thank you for your patience in reading this long entry and close with the words of Harlan Coben from Long Lost.

But more than that, Paris makes you feel alive.
Makes you want to feel alive.
You want to do and be and savor when you are here
You want to feel, simply feel, and it doesn’t matter what.
All sensation is heightened
Paris makes you want to cry and laugh and fall in love and write a poem and make love and compose a symphony


We left Paris with a symphony of memories in our hearts, dreaming of the next time we would be fortunate enough to experience it's many delights.

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